Interview With World-Famous Jazz Musician Branford Marsalis

By Melissa Rugierri | March 2nd, 2014

Boomer interviews jazz musician Branford Marsalis


Branford Marsalis Quartet

April 11, 7:30 p.m., University of Richmond Modlin Center for the Arts

804-289-8980, tickets.modlin.richmond.edu

“I can defend my thinking — that’s the joy of being 53′

It’s barely 8 a.m. and Branford Marsalis is already playing his saxophone.

“I get up between 5 and 7 a.m., usually,” he says. “Today, regrettably, it was 3:30 a.m.”

He always wakes early enough in his Durham, N.C., home to help his wife, Nicole, shuffle their two daughters, ages 13 and 9, off to school and prepare for a round of lessons he plans to take with a Baroque flutist in London in March.

Marsalis, the candid, whip-smart sax maestro who grew up in an esteemed musical family (father Ellis Jr., brothers Jason, Wynton, Ellis III and Delfeayo), has toured with Sting, directed The Tonight Show band in the early ’90s, taught at several universities, delved into classical music and composed music for Broadway shows (“Fences” and “The Mountaintop”).

Q: YOU’RE PLAYING THE MODLIN CENTER AT UNIVERSITY OF RICHMOND. DO YOU LIKE PLAYING COLLEGES BECAUSE OF THE ACADEMIC ENVIRONMENT?

A: It’s a different crowd for me. Universities have these great cultural programming and people my age and older who sponsor them. But some of the things I’ve done, like playing with the [Grateful] Dead, means some young kids will filter in and check it out and it will be their first jazz experience for most of them. The jazz students tend not to enjoy themselves because they’re so busy analyzing.

Q: YOU’VE BEEN PLAYING WITH THE BRANFORD MARSALIS QUARTET [WITH] PIANIST JOEY CALDERAZZO AND BASSIST ERIC REVIS FOR A WHILE. BUT WHAT DID DRUMMER JUSTIN FAULKNER BRING TO THE GROUP DYNAMIC WHEN HE JOINED IN 2009?

A: He brought a level of intensity. You get a bunch of old guys and you think you still got it. He was 18 when he joined and we were looking at each other like, good God! This kid showed up and it was like wow, we really forgot, he’s also a student.

Q: YOU RELEASED [YOUR MOST RECENT ALBUM, 2012’S FOUR MFS PLAYIN’ TUNES] ON VINYL FIRST. DO YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF A SOUND PURIST?

A: I don’t consider myself a purist, but analog just sounds better. If you have $10,000 to spend on a stereo, vinyl is the superior by far. If all you have to spend is 600 bucks, or 300 bucks – most people, their budget for music is $1,000 a year – so given that, digital is clearly the way to go. But friends of mine who are sound fanatics, they hate CDs.

Q: ARE YOU STILL TEACHING AT NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL UNIVERSITY?

A: I adjunct 24 days a year. It keeps you young. I think one of the beauties of being young is you can be absolutely wrong with certitude and no one calls you arrogant or obstinate, so I enjoy letting [the students] hang themselves. I enjoy taking the pejorative point of view. … I can defend my thinking – that’s the joy of being 53. I met a kid on a plane and he said, ‘I was at UNC when you did this talk and it really had an effect on me,’ and pulled out his phone and had notes [from the lecture] on it. You reach one [student], that’s awesome.

Q: WHAT KEEPS YOU IN DURHAM?

A: The people are nice, but we have some weird political s*** going on. I don’t know if I’ll stay. But the food situation is incredible. The local restaurants, at every one we frequent, there is a list of all the farms they use produce from. I was talking to a guy from Raleigh and he asked why I lived in Durham and I said it reminds me of New Orleans.

Q: DO YOU GET BACK TO NEW ORLEANS MUCH?

A: I don’t. If I hadn’t married a Yankee whose mother lives in Philly, I’d be there now.

Q: YOU’VE DONE A LOT OF STUFF WITH JAM-TYPE ARTISTS LIKE THE DEAD AND DAVE MATTHEWS BAND. IS IT THE FREE- FORM ELEMENT YOU ENJOY?

A: It’s not really free form. It’s jazz-like in a way because you have the song and this thing in the middle can be whatever it wants to be and then you have the ending, which is scripted. There are certain bands where the musicianship, they function so well as a unit, like DMB or [Bruce] Hornsby’s band. It’s always fun to be up there because you don’t know what’s coming.

Q: ARE THERE ANY POP MUSICIANS YOU LIKE?

A: Justin Timberlake is my favorite by far. He’s studied. He was hanging out in Memphis and learning. And he’s very charismatic. The great thing about [longtime friend] Harry [Connick Jr.] being on American Idol is that this is the first time they have a studied musician on the panel. It will benefit some of the people who are viewing. When you tell someone who doesn’t know about music that they’re ‘pitchy,’ how could they fix it if they don’t know what it means? There was never an attempt to make these kids better. One of my favorite [judges] was Nicki Minaj. She new she didn’t  know anything about music, but she knew about show biz.

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